Episode #5: In Defense of Defense Mechanisms

Too many people dismiss Freud because he had a few controversial ideas, but I try to point out that many of Freud’s ideas were very influential and can, with a little attention, be seen in everyday life.

Click the image below to see a concept map of the defense mechanisms discussed in this episode.

Defense Mechanisms

Here are my show notes for this episode:

  • NOTE: I want to thank listener Allen Esterson for helping to improve the accuracy of the information in this podcast. While I retain here a typical definition and example for repression (holocaust victims), Dr. Esterson points out that Freud’s concept of repression is highly controversial and that there is good argument and evidence to suggest that we do not repress memories and that victims of the holocaust have not repressed their memories of their experiences. For more in-depth information on this topic, he recommends reading Erdelyi, M.H. (2006). The Unified Theory of Repression, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29, 499-551, and the work of Richard McNally.

  • Repression. Blocking a threatening idea, memory, or emotion from consciousness.
  • Reaction formation. Transforming anxiety-producing thoughts into their opposites in consciousness.
  • Regression. Returning to more primitive levels of behavior in defense against anxiety or frustration.
  • Rationalization. Justifying one’s behavior or failures by plausible or socially acceptable reasons in place of the real reason.
  • Denial. Refusing to admit that something unpleasant is happening, or that a taboo emotion in being experienced. Note: Denial distorts the way you perceive events (“I am NOT angry at you”) repression blocks or distorts your memory of events (the so-called “repressed memories” in which a person was molested but up to this point had no memory of it).
  • Displacement. Discharging pent-up feelings, usually of hostility, on objects less dangerous than those that initially aroused the emotion.

Examples of Rationalization (taken from an Instructor’s Manual for Intro Psych, but I forget which book):

  • After Carla rejected him, Phil told his friends that he didn’t think she was very attractive and interesting, and that he really wasn’t all that crazy about her.
  • Jack told his parents that he got a C in his psychology course because all the As and Bs went to students who cheated on tests and had professionals write their papers.
  • Bill said that the reason he flunked out of college was because of the poor quality of teaching there.

Examples of Reaction Formation:

  • George feels that his younger son, Gary, is unattractive and not very smart. He accuses his wife of picking on Gary and favoring their other son.
  • Lucy dresses in provocative clothes and uses suggestive language although she fears that she is unattractive and she really isn’t very interested in sex.
  • John has a lot of unconscious hostility toward his father but he acts very affectionate toward him and tells other people that he and his father have a wonderful relationship.

Examples of Regression:

  • After Sue Ann’s baby brother was born, she began to talk baby-talk and suck her thumb.
  • Mary was homesick and anxious when she moved into the dormitory and started her first year in college. She began to sleep with her favorite teddy bear again.

Examples of Denial

  • Sixteen-year-old Tom had started using drugs, and the changes in his behavior made it pretty obvious, but Tom’s parents didn’t believe the school principal when she called to talk with them about the problem.
  • Bill, who is 50 years old wears clothes that you would see on teenagers and drives a sports car. He can’t see that he doesn’t look 30, or even 40, anymore.
  • Shakespeare: “The lady doth protest too much, me thinks.”
  • From Academic Earth: This lecture introduces students to the theories of Sigmund Freud, including a brief biographical description and his contributions to the field of psychology. The limitations of his theories of psychoanalysis are covered in detail, as well as the ways in which his conception of the unconscious mind still operate in mainstream psychology today.

14 thoughts on “Episode #5: In Defense of Defense Mechanisms

  1. This was really useful for my exam especially that we had to include some critical thinking aspects in our answers..Thanks a lot! I love the connecting to other psychologists (Loftus etc)

  2. Khamael,

    Glad you liked the episode. I haven’t done an episode on Elizabeth Loftus’ research yet, but I really have to. She’s done some excellent work.

  3. Hi Michael
    Your article on defense mechanisms (Freud) seems to neglect Alfred Adler’s earlier contributions (“Safeguarding behavior”) which were essentially the same thing but which Freud rejected as being too attached to ego psychology, which was a no-no with him and others at the time. (Which was why, during the spring 1911 debates, Freud accused Adler of speaking only to “ego psychology.”) Some 15 years later, however, Freud took Adler’s ideas (as he did with so much of Adler!) and re-named them the “ego defence mechanisms.” [The Ansbachers devote chapter ten to this topic in their classic “The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler,” Basic Books, 1956.] They note that the difference between Freud and Adler on this was Freud’s biological orientation, whereas Adler’s was social. Of course Adler was the first psychiatrist Freud invited (October, 1902) to help create what became psycho-analysis, so it was to be expected that there’d be some over-lap in their approaches, and some “taking” of Adler’s ideas by Freud. E.g., “aggression instinct” by Adler, rejectedd by Freud, then later taken by Freud as a main pillar of psycho-analysis!) Just thought you’d like to know that Adlerians see this article as one-sided and incomplete. (Sorry, my main web site is http://www.lifecourseinstitute.com/, with MUCH info on Adler, but I’m having problems uploading it.)

  4. Bob,
    Thanks so much for your comment. Clearly you know a lot about the history between Freud and Adler regarding defense mechanisms, so I’ll defer to you on this. I was unaware of this issue between the two of them over defense mechanisms. Thanks for this (I fixed the link to the Life Course Institute so it should be working now). – Michael

  5. Hello Micheal,
    I am studying for the LCSW exam and alot of the material is very helpful, especially on Freud, and Erickson. I have failed the test two times, I have alot of anxiety , fear of failing the exam. I studied before but really want to learn what I studied now and get rid of this anxiety, What else do you have to help with the anxiety and on development. Thanks so much

  6. C.J. — You say you “have a lot of anxiety.” It’s an interesting way to put it, that you possess (or are possessed by) negative thoughts by which you trouble yourself. This is called “psycholoogy of possession.” Dr. Alfred Adler contrasted it with “psychology of use,” or that behavior is chosen (not caused, not caught like a cold!) for the purpose it can have in the person’s life. If you were in Adlerian counseling, I’d ask, “What do you get out of feeling anxious in the face of the LCSW exam?” There’s no “right” answer, only YOUR answer. My experience is that a client’s response is to say, “Are you crazy? What could I possibly get out of this behavior that blocks me from my goals, this behavior that I have come to you to stop?!?!” But when we talk, the person begins to see that (1) behavior is chosen, and (2) behavior has a goal, a purpose, a result. So I ask you: What do you intend as a result of being anxious? (Hint: What results have you already gotten?) You’ve failed the exam twice, showing how powerful you are, and that you can achieve what you set out to achieve! You have chosen, and carried out, a behavior that gives you a result. Since no one else is in charge of your emotions, it is clear that you can do what is needed to get what you want! This is heady stuff! Clearly you are a strong, determined person. (But if you truly want to pass the exam, you’ll want to choose some other goal than failing, and some mental behavior other than anxiety to gain this new goal. That’s up to you. By choosing as you have, you’ve shown you are powerful. So choose that which will gain victory…assuming that’s what you want.) You might want to talk with an Adlerian /Rational-emotive, or cognitive therapist about your mistaken thought processes before you take the exam again. Best wishes! — Bob Herrmann-Keeling — email: bobhk@aol.com

  7. Is there a way to get a transcript of this episode? I have to use this for my Psychology assignment.
    Thank you

  8. Is there a way to get a transcript of this episode? I need it for my Psychology assignment.

    Thank you

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